Observers with their eyes half open may have seen the spectre of a confused Sir Michael Wilshaw zooming past this week as he bats away at the shibboleths he believes are standing in the way of improving England’s schools. What has got him upset has been the PISA tests and how “awful” England are at them. Well, no. As argued elsewhere, these are not as disastrous as they seem, and it is only the doom-mongers who say that they are. But the level of confusion and unsupported thinking in the mind of the man who is supposed to be our chief inspector of schools is worrying and quite alarming.
So, in short order, we have had messages that the most able are not adequately catered for in our primary schools, that grammar schools are much too middle class and are doing nothing about social mobility (except to attract middle-class parents from the commonwealth to our shores), that we need testing for 7 year olds in response to the PISA outcomes, and if the Guardian report is to be believed, for all children at the end of every year, and that white British boys are underachieving and need to be better taught. Most of this lurks beneath the surface of or within the commentary on the OFSTED 2012/13 Annual Report.
He also thinks that teacher holidays are too long. Actually he thinks a lot of things, but the connection between brain and mouth seems to be in fine working order right now, and we are getting the benefit of the gate being open.
Wilshaw is partly right about grammar schools, of course, but possibly for the wrong reasons. As someone who was sent to a boarding school to complete my education, I am not really in a position to moan about grammar schools, but it seems to me that where comprehensive schools have been most successful is in the area of providing an excellent education for a wide variety of children, managing both the social divergence that communities experience and the need for all to learn. As there are a large number of these in the UK already, proving that it can be done with the support and encouragement of local authorities, then the need for schools to become academies or to look fondly at grammar schools as a model for the future is not a philosophical necessity the way the Tories think it is.
At the heart of both Tory and OFSTED views is a competitive, driven approach to education, threatened by the PISA scores, rooted in an industrial model that says that if we don’t do better, then the Far Eastern countries will come and take all our sweets. And it is this philosophy, as attractive as it might seem, that is at the heart of what is wrong, because the ONLY thing that is gained by this is a greater stake in a money economy. Is this what we are educating children for?
As for teacher holidays, well, yes, we probably do have too much. We could manage with 3 weeks in the summer, I imagine. However, as argued in a separate post, this does not negate the need for children and their parents to be well served by long summer holidays. They, not teachers, are the ones who need the really long break.